The gas lamps of Westminster, now rescued from the Council's demolition scheme

Brought to light

May the reprieve of Westminster’s gas lamps become a full pardon

Artillery Row

Look up, when you next walk the streets of Westminster, and savour the view. The Council has granted a stay of execution for the 250 or so original, working gas lamps still in its care. At the moment it is a temporary reprieve, but Council Leader Rachael Robathan is on the cusp of restoring my faith in local democracy. She and her colleagues have paused to listen to a disparate group of local residents, business owners, heritage professionals and architectural historians, engineers and enthusiasts who reacted with dismay to the destruction of the lights. Thanks also to The Critic and regular contributors Adam Dant and Charles Saumarez Smith, who were among the first to take up cudgels on our behalf. My fellow antique dealer Luke Honey hurled himself into the campaign after reading about the lamps; he was so incensed that it cost him a night’s sleep. Luke’s London Gasketeers Instagram account gathered 3,000 supporters in its first ten days. People are genuinely bothered.

Gas lamps give out a Dickensian glow all but impossible to replicate

I am only an amateur gas lamp aficionado. I run an antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court with my wife, and a working Sugg Rochester pendant lamp stands outside our door. Every couple of weeks a British Gas engineer sets a ladder against the lamppost, resets the clockwork timer and gives the glass a quick polish. Cecil Court is one of the last streets in London which is completely lined with independent specialist shops. The aesthetics of the lighting are important for my business, and the gas lamps give out a distinctive Dickensian glow which is all but impossible to replicate — a quality of light which has illuminated Cecil Court since it was rebuilt in the 1890s. I couldn’t put it better than Simon Callow, who captured the spirit of our street in a gas lamp-themed podcast we recorded for the wonderful Ladies Who London: “a little piece of perfection; a wonderful place to be human in; not quaint, not twee, just absolutely charming”. Why spoil it?

The destruction of the lanterns in Martlett Court, March 2020 (Photo by Nick Taylor)

Now you will appreciate my horror when council contractors dug a hole outside our shop and breezily explained that they were checking to see how easy it would be to convert the lamp to electricity. Calling round likely individuals such as Dan Cruickshank, and interested bodies such as the Victorian Society, quickly revealed that no one had heard anything about it. Local resident Nick Taylor later showed me photographs of the brutal conversion of the gas lamps in Martlett Court and Crown Court (off Bow Street) as far back as March 2020. The original lanterns were removed and discarded — what happened to them we have never ascertained, but it seems possible they were skipped — and new LED “heritage” lanterns were installed on the old posts.

With almost no consultation Westminster Council was planning to mete out the same treatment to all 300 of its surviving gas lamps, whether listed (which about half of them are) or not. In case you are wondering, it’s actually quite hard to convert an old lantern from gas to LED: gas needs ventilation; LEDs require a closed chamber. The replacements were billed by the council as “like for like”, but to my eye this is simply not the case. I suspect that to recreate the precise detailing of the originals would be prohibitively expensive: the light source is different, and in any case the patina of age is impossible to replicate. And should one even try? The issue of sympathetic versus replica fixtures and fittings in historic settings is sensitive. We should know are we looking at the original or not?

Converting Westminster’s gas lamps won’t save the planet

Gas street lighting revolutionised urban living. It was first demonstrated effectively in Westminster, and for most of its history William Sugg & Co — the firm which made the lamps in Cecil Court, and which exported them around the world — was Westminster-based. Future generations should have the opportunity to see the technology in operation where it began. A replica, however good, is not the real thing. Think of gas lamps as more modest (but equally important) equivalents of the Flying Scotsman, HMS Victory or a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Retaining the posts is not the same as keeping the lamps.

Westminster Council has raised concerns about cost, the environment, safety and maintenance. The financial cost of converting each lamp is enormous, and any monetary savings would take decades to recoup, to say nothing of the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. It would be far cheaper to fully refurbish each existing lamp, and anyone who has limited interest in either heritage or the environment should at least be alive to the risk of wasting taxpayers’ money.

The environmental aspect truly concerns me. The phrase “Climate Emergency” is a shibboleth, used so indiscriminately that it will soon lose its potency. Supporters of gas lighting tell me it has benefits for mental health, wildlife, dark skies and much more. Gaslight apparently cuts through all weathers, including mist and fog, better than any other illumination. Its technology is far from dead, and the rush to electrify everything may soon appear as premature as the rush to turn over city centres to the car, or to subsidise “green” diesel. We are already seeing greater use of bio-gas, and if I had to take a punt on which energy source we’ll be using more of in a decade’s time, my money would be on hydrogen (which would work extremely well with gas lamps.) In the here and now, the carbon cost of converting the lamps to electricity (digging up streets, fabricating new lanterns) appears to outweigh any supposed green dividend.

There are ways of making the existing lamps greener, by installing more efficient burners which use less gas, or installing electronic ignition: former MoD scientist Brian Harper’s company Sight Design Ltd is among those which have been upgrading the technology. However, there are so few gas lamps left — about 250, out of 15,000 street lights in Westminster — that any potential savings would be statistically meaningless. Together they use less gas than 100 typical homes, and a patio heater uses ten times as much gas as a single street lamp. Whichever way you spin it, converting Westminster’s gas lamps won’t save the planet.

Visitors don’t come to London to enjoy bland uniformity

The safety issues revolve around light levels. Most of Westminster’s gas lamps are in busy, well-trodden areas in any case, but there are ways of increasing brightness where appropriate, some as simple as installing reflectors. If the lamps are well managed, there is no reason for them to fail any more often than their electric counterparts.

Finally, we come to maintenance. I had the absolute joy of travelling with Luke Honey to the Battersea depot where the gas lamps are maintained, and meeting Joe Fuller and his team of British Gas engineers. We found a wealth of expertise and professional pride, and they are taking on new staff so that their skills continue to be passed on. They know each lamp, and they understand better than anyone how they perform. Joe showed me racks of spare parts (proving beyond all doubt that sourcing them is not an issue), and he estimates that his team can fix any mechanical fault within 24 hours. When asked about upgrades, he told us that while always ready to experiment — he showed us reflectors installed on a lamp which they were currently testing — the existing technology is so well-tried it is hard to beat. For sheer robustness, he would back his clockwork timers against anything digital.

Gas lamps are cherished in other major cities around the world, from Prague to Boston, by way of Dublin. Here in the UK they are maintained by a number of authorities and institutions as an amenity for residents and a draw for tourists. Malvern is a glowing example, and there are plans afoot for Bristol. The lamps outside St Paul’s Covent Garden have just been lovingly restored, and gas lamps are being reintroduced within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. In a world city, Westminster Council should be able to do the same throughout the borough. Standardisation might make administration easier, but visitors don’t come to London to enjoy bland uniformity, and it’s not why we chose to base our business here either. It’s worth pausing to preserve small things which improve the texture of daily life. Before lockdown there were walking tours of Westminster by gaslight. Here’s hoping that a reprieve becomes a full pardon: long may they shine on.

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